Veterinary students enlisted to monitor CWD in Minnesota

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The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has recruited students from the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine to aid in surveillance for chronic wasting disease, a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy of North American deer and elk.

From Nov. 9-12, around 25 veterinary students worked with wildlife biologists to collect brain samples from hunter-killed deer in designated areas throughout the state. The first and only known case of CWD in Minnesota involved a farmed elk that died in August.

The collaboration between the state and veterinary college marks the kickoff of the Veterinary Response Team, which prepares veterinary students to assist in the event of a state or national emergency.

"The veterinary profession must be able to rapidly respond in the face of new and emerging issues of regional urgency," said Dr. William Hueston, director of the university's Center for Animal Health and Food Safety.

Chronic wasting disease was first reported in the United States in 1967 in Colorado in mule deer. Since then, it has turned up in free-ranging deer and elk in Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Montana, and Colorado.

More recently, Wisconsin's billion-dollar hunting industry was shaken this year when the fatal brain disease was diagnosed in randomly sampled bucks in February. A wild deer shot in Illinois this October tested positive for the disease, becoming the state's first known CWD case.

"The detection of CWD in Winnebago County is disappointing," said Brent Manning, director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. "We are committed to a long-term plan of stepped-up surveillance and monitoring, and to taking all steps biologically appropriate to control the spread of chronic wasting disease in Illinois."

The cause and transmission of CWD are not known. Theories about the cause range from an abnormal prion to an unconventional virus. There is no evidence that other ruminant species are infected through contact with CWD-infected deer or elk. Nor are there any known health risks to humans eating meat from infected animals, although handling, processing, and consumption precautions are recommended.

In addition to the efforts of Minnesota's veterinary students, a hundred veterinary clinics across the state will collect brain samples submitted by hunters for testing.